FIVE years ago today, the ABC Four Corners program “A Bloody Business” exploded onto television screens throughout the nation, igniting a cataclysmic chain of events that catapulted Australia’s northern beef cattle industry into its deepest crisis.
The dramatic, emotion charged broadcast showed repeated images of graphic and intolerable animal cruelty, originally captured by animal rights group Animals Australia in mid-March 2011, from deliberately targeted Indonesian abattoirs.
Intertwined with vision also filmed by the ABC’s own investigation a month before, the expose zoomed-in on the gore and violence, to portray the live animal export trade as being systematically cruel and desperately needing government intervention to enact urgent reforms.
“Although he chose not to be interviewed for the story, the Minister, Joe Ludwig said in a statement that despite the improvement of animal welfare over the past decade due to industry and government efforts, he accepts that more work needs to be done,” ABC Presented Kerry O’Brien said to summarise the 45-minute broadcast.
“Something of an understatement.”
Reaction to the program’s disturbing content was fast and furious, sparking a volcanic public response the likes of which many veteran politicians said they’ve never before witnessed or have seen ever since.
The subsequent media reporting was just as intense and relentless, focussing squarely on public and political outrage at the abhorrent animal cruelty.
Emails flooded the in-boxes of parliamentary representatives faster than lightning expressing horror at what the authors had just witnessed.
Mostly, those electronic messages were conveniently typed by outraged citizens drawing heated conclusions, whilst sitting in comfy suburban lounge-rooms thousands of miles away from any pastoral property and even further removed from Indonesia.
Some communications also contained vicious abuse and death threats aimed at livestock industry representatives and their families which were later reported to police.
Oddly enough, those threats were incited by a perverse desire by the perpetrators to feel they were somehow improving the plight of animals and promoting kindness, by physically harming other human beings.
A repetitive theme of the surging correspondence was to thank Animals Australia investigator Lyn White for “exposing” cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs while demanding the entire $1 billion per year live export trade be banned immediately, as a silver-bullet solution.
“Now that Aussies have been confronted with the truth, they don’t like it and they are finally seeking alternatives to the live animal export market,” one email sent to Tasmanian Independent MP Andrew Wilkie said.
Another message clicked and sent to a farming group’s website that night said the level of “sadistic cruelty” witnessed in the program was “beyond belief”.
“These cows where flogged, whipped, kicked and had their heads stomped on in the Indonesian abattoirs before having their necks not cut open but sawn open,” one online message said.
“If we have any level of compassion left inside us then this export has to stop.
“The representatives of the Australian meat industry on this program made pathetic excuse after excuse.
“This for profit - God forgive us.”
Another internet inspired message said, “I don't think I will ever eat meat again”.
A government regulatory impact report on the Indonesian situation would later state that over 150,000 items of correspondence were received, largely campaign emails, from individuals and organisations in response to the shocking broadcast.
The report said livestock exports featured in the top five political issues covered by the Australian media for nine weeks from the end of May to the end of August 2011.
And according to Media Monitors, in the first seven weeks from May 30 to July 16 that year, more than 58,000 individual media items appeared in the press, radio, television and internet on the topic, it said.
Recounting the mood of that remarkable time, the then Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association (NTCA) president Rohan Sullivan said he and other members became aware in early April 2011 that trouble was brewing having learned Ms White had been in Indonesia filming, the month before.
“We knew that Four Corners had approached members of the industry sort of wanting to do a general story about the beef industry,” he said.
“Basically we put two and two together and we thought something must be going on there behind the scenes and that they have obviously got something that they want to try and nail us to the wall with.”
Mr Sullivan was subsequently interviewed for the Four Corners program and later lodged a formal complaint with ABC management at being misrepresented, having not been shown the video footage of the animal cruelty he was asked to comment on.
“Certainly the way it was portrayed in the Four Corners show made it look like I knew about some of the gross stuff that was later shown on that program - that is what my gripe was about,” he said.
“It made it look like I knew about it when I actually didn’t.”
Mr Sullivan said he watched the program at home on his Top End cattle station and in the first five minutes said ‘we are in deep shit here; this is not good at all’.
“It was quiet unbelievable but you had to believe it because you were seeing it on the TV set,” he said.
Afterwards, Mr Sullivan tried to put forward cattle producers’ views when moderating online comments that streamed onto the Four Corners web page but he abandoned the task in despair.
After a sleepless night, he worked from his cattle station office the next day diligently answering phone calls and responding to the deluge of emails sent to the NTCA.
“Any email that came in, regardless of how abusive they were, I tried to answer them,” he said.
“Some were saying, ‘how could you be letting this happen? You know you have got blood on your hands’, that sort of thing.
“I just wrote back a couple of paragraphs explaining the situation we were in and how we were so dependent on the Indonesian market and the industry as a whole was putting money into addressing the animal welfare issues and even though it’s been shown to be inadequate that we couldn’t abandon the market, because that was basically all we had so we had to try and do the best we could.”
Then NTCA Executive Director Luke Bowen had an equally challenging morning after Four Corners, receiving about 100 voice mail messages on his mobile phone by 11am from media and other inquiries, which became a regular pattern of events during the new few weeks.
“It was very intense,” he said of that period.
Cameron Hall was LiveCorp CEO at the time said he watched the Four Corners broadcast with other industry organisation members as they contemplated an industry response.
He said the mood in the room that night was “obviously deep concern and full knowledge of the gravity of the situation”.
“Immediately after the program we started receiving complaints,” he said having also been interviewed as the industry’s spokesperson after viewing the video footage.
“Me personally, and a number of people, started receiving threatening emails and phone calls, all of those sorts of things.
“I didn’t fear for my life, but was very concerned around my welfare and the welfare of my family and the welfare of our staff and the welfare of our exporter members.
“We relocated staff for a couple of days due to the nature and the content of some of the threats we received and we took a number of those to the police and asked them to follow up.”
Mr Hall said he was concerned about threats received in the immediate two or three days after the Four Corners broadcast but was more alarmed at the nature of correspondence still arriving up to 14 days later.
“People had had time to reflect and think about things but were still very angry to the point of being violently (threatening) towards individuals,” he said.
Mr Hall said he had never suggested the video footage shown on ABC television wasn’t “horrific” or that animal welfare standards were perfect in export markets and capable of improvement.
But he said the Four Corners program was positioned and put together to create a “significant emotional shock within the community”.
“It was very well orchestrated and very well planned,” he said.
“When you saw what happened after that, with regards to the meat workers union, with regards to the GetUp! campaign, with regards to all those sorts of things, it showed there was a huge amount of planning and a well-orchestrated, very clear strategy over a long period of time.”
On the morning of May 31, public focus switched to Parliament House in Canberra, where Opposition leader Tony Abbott had been relentlessly attacking then Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s leadership in the hung parliament while two rural independents held the balance of power in the lower house and the Greens in the Senate.
Added to those so called unholy alliances, Ms Gillard was also being actively undermined by the man she replaced as PM before the 2010 election, Kevin Rudd, who was also her then Foreign Minister in cabinet.
However, he remained fixated on returning to the Labor leadership and in mid-2013 would eventually succeed in reclaiming that power.
Amid that tangled political backdrop, Animals Australia and the RSPCA joined online advocacy group GetUp! and the Australasian Meat Industry Employers Union to follow momentum gained by the ABC’s screening, demanding immediate regulatory action after Four Corners, in an urgent petition calling on Ms Gillard to ban the live cattle trade to Indonesia.
At a media conference at Parliament House that day, RSPCA Chief Scientist Bidda Jones stood shoulder to shoulder with Ms White and then GetUp! National Director Simon Sheikh - who subsequently ran as a Senate candidate for the Australian Greens at the 2013 federal election - to demand an end to live animal exports.
Mr Sheikh said the Australian government was “culpable” for what had just been witnessed in Indonesia, via the ABC broadcast the night before, “and indeed what we understand is happening in many other parts of the world”.
He said a campaign started by his online advocacy group to ban live exports had gathered 24,000 new members, during the previous 12 hours, and the “only moral thing” the Prime Minister could do was “immediately execute” a moratorium on the live export industry to Indonesia.
Mr Sheikh said the ALP caucus was meeting “now” where the controversial live exports issue was being raised and he expected “backlash” from government members and the community.
But when asked about potential job losses for the Australian cattle industry, he said “The reality of the live exports industry is that it is unnecessary for this country”.
“If an immediate ban were put in place, a moratorium on live exports to Indonesia today, the Gillard government could help Australian farmers in the top end get their cattle straight down to South Australia where there are plenty of opportunities for the meat processing industry to participate in Australian slaughter,” he said.
“We understand that the meat processing industry will in fact grow Australian jobs if we make this move and we’re also asking today for the Gillard government to help these farmers in the short term with transport subsidies so they can get their cattle to market.”
Australian Farm Institute Executive Director Mick Keogh would later say organisations like GetUp! that had no ownership or understanding of the issue from a rural perspective had acted like a “lynch-mob” in a “hit and run” style campaign.
“The first lesson is that in an age of instant communications and rapid and universal access to information, issues like this can emerge very quickly and generate a seemingly strong community response,” he said while also highlighting the lack of coherent response by the cattle industry, due to representative fragmentation, wasn’t helping.
“A flood of emails into politicians’ in-boxes is not a good basis on which to make snap policy decisions, especially if that flood of emails is organised by professional activists having little or no understanding of the complexity of the issue.
“Electronic communication systems make it very convenient for a person to join a ‘lynch mob’ without ever leaving their desk.”
In her immediate comments after the Four Corners broadcast, Ms White told Canberra journalists she’d been conducting investigations into the treatment of Australian livestock throughout the Middle East since 2003 and had returned with “horrendous evidence of mistreatment”.
She said the latest example of graphic evidence from Indonesia “shows that the live export trade cannot be trusted” and would “without hesitation supply animals to be brutally treated and then in Indonesia even go so far as to facilitate it”.
“This is not a trade worthy of government support,” she said.
“The only way that Australian cattle are not going to be brutalised tonight is if the Gillard government immediately halts the live trade to Indonesia and does the right thing now.
“This is about having animals killed here under Australian regulations and having that meat shipped chilled to other countries; it’s about not exporting live animals.”
Dr Jones said the RSPCA and Animals Australia were the nation’s “peak animal welfare bodies and the Indonesian campaign was the first time they’d come together for an “immense opportunity to explain to the Australian public the truth about live exports”.
“The industry and government for years have misled the Australian public over the treatment of our animals overseas,” she said.
“Government needs to act now and halt trade.
“We cannot allow Australian cattle to be treated in this way night after night in Indonesian abattoirs.
“It happened last night (and) it will happen tonight until the government acts.”
Earlier, Mr Wilkie demanded the government immediately end the export of Australian livestock to Indonesia due to systematic failures in animal welfare standards and phase-out the trade over three years moving towards domestic meat processing.
“The system is broken,” he said.
At the same media conference, Independent SA Senator Nick Xenophon said if what was witnessed the night before on the ABC was occurring in Australia “those responsible would be arrested, would be charged with and prosecuted for animal cruelty and some of them could well end up in jail”.
“The system is broken – we need fundamental reform and the Australian government needs to do the right thing and ban exports to Indonesia because of the deep and systemic flaws we saw there,” he said.
Senator Xenophon said he’d also seen footage from Animals Australia that was more explicit and horrific than what was shown on Four Corners the night before.
Mr Wilkie said he would also provide Ms Gillard with video footage that was also worse than what the ABC had broadcast and urge her to watch the vision and act on it.
“We have a moral responsibility to make sure we only trade animals with countries that treat those animals properly,” he said.
“We have to end our trade with Indonesia now and the industry wound up in three years.”
Mid-afternoon in Canberra, and with public pressure intensifying, the then Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig held a packed media conference to announce the government’s first move post Four Corners, to suspend cattle going to the 11 abattoirs highlighted in the ABC program, with more potentially in the firing line.
Minister Ludwig also announced a comprehensive supply chain review would be conducted and a moratorium on using the restraint boxes that had horrified the public during the ABC telecast, for inflicting animal cruelty despite their design intent.
He said the scenes presented in the ABC program were “shocking in the extreme” and unacceptable to anyone who saw them.
He told press gallery reporters he didn’t want to get into a game of “rule in, or rule out” on whether he’d order a full suspension but stressed it was “certainly on the table” given animal welfare standards needed to be assured in export markets.
Senator Ludwig said more animal cruelty evidence had also been provided to his office by the RSPCA and, rather than naming Animals Australia, he described them as an “animal rights” group.
He told reporters the live export trade was valued at about a $1 billion at that time with the Indonesian component valued at about $330m and created 10,000 jobs across the north of Australia.
When pressed on the industry’s future, Senator Ludwig said it was a valuable trade with mutually beneficial outcomes for Australia and Indonesia that also extended to other export markets with “world class” abattoirs.
But he stressed the trade’s stability was “predicated” on achieving animal welfare outcomes that appeased community concerns and achieved accepted international standards.
An odd intervention during the media conference was a question posed to Minister Ludwig by Dr Jones who had also appeared in the ABC broadcast and provided an extensive examination of the video footage and report detailing the underlying animal welfare faults.
“Minister: Australia exports to over 120 different locations in Indonesia - there’s no evidence that those locations are any different to the ones that were in the report last night - why are you going to allow animals to continue to be exported to those locations?” she quizzed.
In reply, Senator Ludwig said he was seeking information from his Department on the range of regulatory options available to him and the 11 abattoirs he’d just suspended trade to could increase, if any evidence was provided to him of any animal abuse.
Afterwards, Nationals leader Warren Truss spoke to media and said everyone, especially cattle producers, would be “shocked and dismayed” at what they’d seen on ABC television the night before.
Mr Truss supported Australian cattle not being sent to abattoirs where unacceptable outcomes for animal welfare were occurring - but he stressed Australia’s involvement in the live export industry had led to improved standards, over time.
“We should use foreign aid and other resources to upgrade Indonesian abattoirs so only acceptable slaughter standards are used for Australian cattle,” he said.
Asked why he didn’t support a full trade moratorium on the Indonesian market, Mr Truss said “If you have an accident on the road you don’t close the highway; you try and fix the problems”.
He said some Indonesian abattoirs used “world’s best practices” and it would be inappropriate to close the cattle trade to those facilities at a sensitive time in the trading cycle.
“The reality is the only way in which we can have a cattle industry in the north is to be able to export those cattle live,” he said.
“A lot of work has been done in improving practices - we need to continue to do that - and unless the industry achieves satisfactory standards the social licence that they have from the Australian public for this kind of industry, will expire.”
Ms White also interrupted that media conference asking Mr Truss if he was aware 103 restraint boxes - that Australian industry installed along with government funding - had no capacity to incorporate stunning “and it was never the industry’s intention to extend stunning to those facilities”.
She also asked if he was aware, “that the industry actually abandoned a stunning trial last year and said that it wasn’t feasible and then as a result of this investigation they are suddenly trying to say to government that stunning is feasible when in their own report they said that it wasn’t”.
Mr Truss said the ABC program showed a “brief clip” of pre-slaughter stunning being used in Indonesia which demonstrated that it can be done but “ought to be implemented quickly”.
During Senate Estimates in Canberra on May 24, 2011, NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan intervened on questioning to Department of Agriculture officials by former Liberal Senator Helen Coonan, about the uptake of pre-slaughter stunning in Indonesian abattoirs and other welfare standards.
Senator Heffernan referred to the Four Corners program “which is waiting for these hearings as part of their program for next Monday” saying the public broadcaster had also asked AAco “that exact question”.
“They are saying to David Farley (former AAco CEO), 'These are your cattle that are being slaughtered,' in one of these places that kill six a week’,” he said.
It would later be revealed that Senator Coonan had been given access to view the video footage used extensively in the ABC broadcast the following Monday which was kept from other Coalition members.
Later in questioning, Senator Ludwig said industry had released a plan to address the animal welfare concerns raised by Senator Coonan during her extensive questioning, especially on the use of restraint boxes that Australian industry supplied to Indonesian abattoirs, to improve outcomes.
In response, Senator Ludwig said he wrote to industry in January, “specifically about how they may be able to come back with a plan to improve animal welfare outcomes in Indonesia, particularly around some of the issues that you have described”.
“They have just released a plan - I think on Sunday - but I am keen to continue to work with both the animal welfare organisations and the industry to continue the improvement that has been started for some time,” he said.
Senator Ludwig said industry had been “slow to date” but they “need to accelerate the animal welfare outcomes for the live animal export to continue”.
He said the industry’s proposal was “not a plan that I would endorse” but then later in the hearing stated, “It is not up to me to endorse a plan”.
“It is a plan that the industry has to develop and implement and demonstrate that they are on a continuous improvement in this area because to date, as I have indicated, my view is that it has been very slow,” he said.
“One of the things I have done since coming to this portfolio is start to work with both the animal welfare groups and the live animal export industry to improve animal welfare outcomes, in addition to (former Agriculture Minister Tony Burke's) program of $3.2 million to improve live animal welfare outcomes for export.”
Senator Ludwig said if people had any evidence of abuse to animals, “I think it is incumbent upon them to let the department know so that we can investigate these things rather than try to hypothesise about what might or might not be happening”.
An image of that controversial period that northern cattle industry have said they will never forget or forgive, was Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) spokesperson Tom Maguire shaking hands with Mr Wilkie alongside Dr Jones and Ms White.
After rejecting the government’s initial response on May 31, AMIC called for a full trade ban to implement a whole of life assurance system in the Indonesian market.
“Given that live exports go to feed lots in Indonesia for finishing before slaughter, AMIC questions how the Australian government will enforce this ban,” a media statement said.
“The Minister must ensure the whole of life animal welfare of Australian cattle exported.
“Until this is in place the announced ban will be ineffective and unenforceable – a token gesture.
“The proposed legislation announced by Mr Wilkie and Senator (Nick) Xenophon for an immediate ban on all live exports to Indonesia until the animal welfare issues are addressed, is supported by AMIC.”
A public statement from the RSPCA and Animals Australia also demanded immediate action from the government while pointing to the ferocious public outrage that accompanied the ABC broadcast.
“There are still over 110 locations where Australian cattle are known to be slaughtered and where the same fate exposed by Four Corners will await them,” it said.
A subsequent inquiry into the live exports industry was prompted by the Indonesian crisis and conducted later in 2011, by the Senate Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee.
An extensive report tabled in November that year said no one who appeared before the committee, or wrote to it, condoned the treatment of cattle, as shown in the broadcast footage, saying it was “totally abhorrent and inexcusable”.
The inquiry led a forensic examination of the methods used to gather the video footage by Animals Australia which has along-stated ambition to end live exports and how they collaborated with the ABC.
“Some witnesses expressed concerns about the accuracy of the program, while others made quite serious allegations about the editing of the footage,” the committee report said.
“Some of the individuals interviewed for the program contacted the committee to express concern at the manner in which they were treated by the Four Corner's team and the way in which they were presented to the Australian public.
“What is clear to the committee is that the program was intended to have a significant impact on the viewing public, and through them, the Australian Government and the live export industry.
“Many on the committee are satisfied that the primary motivation for the Four Corner's program was a desire to end the live export trade.
“To say that this objective has been achieved is an understatement.
“The program was so hard hitting that it panicked sections of the community and the Australian government into thinking that the only solution was to immediately suspend the live cattle trade, without consideration of the devastating and far reaching impact this action would have on the many families and communities who depend on the trade for their livelihood, or on Australia's relationship with the Indonesian Government.”
Next – like it or not, how the full Indonesian market suspension came to be.